Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
December 1, 2000
BASEBALL: SUBWAY SERIES DIARY PART I
Sometimes in baseball, as in life, the bad guys win. In fact, it may happen more often than not; that's what makes victory so sweet when it does come. I've delayed long enough; it's time to put to paper my Subway Series Diary.
Despite the Yankees' dominance in 1998 and 1999, many people (including me) were skeptical of their chances when the playoffs started and still favored the Mets at the start of the series. Then again, I rated the Yanks as the best of the AL contenders in late July; while that was based on a vast overestimation of Denny Neagle, I recognized that the two teams were closely matched. I expected the series to come down to the Mets' ability to knock out the Yankee starters or drag games into extra innings, on the theory that the Mets would excel in bullpen depth and home run power. What I didn't anticipate was a series where the Yankees would pull out so many close ones.
GAME ONE: LEITER v. PETTITE AT YANKEE STADIUM
Fox ran some interesting stats: going back to 1969, 14 of 60 Mets postseason games went to extra innings and 17 of the club's 36 postseason victories had come in their last at bat. So many epic games - as this one would turn out to be.
Early on, Pettite looked sharp, but I was optimistic; the Mets were running a lot of deep counts, and there was reason to think we would see the Yankee middle relievers before Rivera could get in the game (as it turned out, Pettite wound up being lifted in the seventh after 96 pitches). Even Timo Perez was taking pitches, no doubt in an attempt to counteract the "book" on him - everyone and his brother was mentioning before the Series that Timo had drawn just one walk in postseason play and the Yankees would never throw him a strike.
This game was more than enough to remind me why I hate Joe Buck. Buck is the embodiment of everything that is false, smarmy, unnecessary and irrelevant to baseball about "Fox Attitude." I don't want to hear dumb, overrehearsed canned humor, and I don't want to see the stars of Fox shows in the stands unless Mr. Burns is hanging out in the Yankee owner's box. Give us the facts, not a wink and a nudge and a hey-buddy.
The sixth inning showcased the worst, though not the only, example of bad baserunning by the Mets, Timo Perez failing to run on a near-homer by Todd Zeile that hit the top of the fence and winding up getting thrown out by a mile at home (Zeile had also been thrown out failing to run on an infield grounder in the fourth, although Zeile doesn't get many infield hits anyway). What was really bizarre about this play was Cookie Rojas waving Perez home when anyone in the park could tell he was going to get gunned down (or at least it looked obvious to me from the TV angle).
Now... Perez is a hungry rookie and was bound to make some mistakes from being overly aggressive, but when you are on a major league roster and starting in the World Series for no other reason than that you are hungry and aggressive, you ought to be running hard on everything, everywhere. You run if Bobby V asks you to get him a cup of coffee. Heck, when I started my first job I used to charge up and down the hallways just to fetch stuff from the printer. Perez doesn't deserve to be the only goat of the Series, but he will probably never be an everyday player again, and this wasn't a moment to look back on with pride when he goes home four years from now.
Anyway, the worst thing about the play, combined with some hustling baserunning by Derek Jeter in the bottom of the inning, was that it gave us a chance to hear more Yankee fan sanctimony (Tim McCarver threw out the ceremonial first gloat) about how the Yankees would never, ever make a baserunning gaffe. Yankee fans have long been second only to Celtics fans in this sort of stuff, but we won't get into the Celtics here since it's not nice to speak ill of the dead.
In the seventh, Bubba came through. Now, I had been agitating since his arrival in New York for an everyday job for Bubba Trammell, and of course it's easy now to look back and say he was always a better player than Timo Perez. If they had played Trammell against the Giants, who knows if they would have won that series? Here, with the Mets down 2-0, Trammell was sent in for the increasingly lifeless Mike Bordick, and drilled a single to tie the game and (soon thereafter) drive out Pettite. Then Pratt scored on a slow roller to Brosius that was beaten out by Alfonzo. Things were looking up - and the door shut. Piazza flies out lamely against Jeff Nelson, and the Yankee pen would go on for five more scoreless innings, including a harrowing escape by Rivera in the top of the ninth when the Mets failed to send the runners on a grounder with second and third and one out.
In came Benitez... and exhausted as I was after a long week, something told me not to go to bed until the last out. Been there too many times before. I've always been a Benitez fan, but this game confirmed all the worst stereotypes about him - that he goes to pieces in the big games, gets rattled and can't get himself straightened out. Paul O'Neill worked Benitez for a walk after an epic at bat, and Torre sends up Polonia. I'm thinking: this is Benitez. He's usually unhittable, but he's also homer-prone. You only get so many shots. Where's Canseco? But Torre's preference for a slap hitter worked, and two batters later O'Neill was trotting home with the tying run.
That's when I knew. I have seen many Met postseason games, many amazing comebacks and an awful lot of extra-inning magic. It was happening again: whoever won this one would win the Series. So much for getting to sleep.
The tenth inning should have ended it, if this was a normal game. The Mets had blown the lead, and now Dennis Cook - who had never allowed a run in the postseason - puts runners on second and third with nobody out. Met fans everywhere are cursing Cook, who had a terrible year and would keep his scoreless streak alive despite having a miserable Series. In comes Glendon Rusch, who had shown a remarkable ability (particularly for a soft-tossing lefty) to get out of man-on-third-less-than-two-out jams earlier in the postseason. And he did it again! A popup by Tino. An intentional walk to Posada, removing Rusch's margin for error, with one thing in mind: a double play ball by Paul O'Neill. And he gets it! O'Neill, cool-headed veteran that he is, slams his helmet down in disgust (can't you tell he used to play for Lou Piniella?). Yankee fans in the front row, who had started smugly for the exits, return to their seats, and suddenly the momentum is back to the Mets. Particularly since Torre, thinking this was his big chance, sent in the mighty Clay Bellinger to run for David Justice, robbing the Yanks of their best threat to end the game in one blow. I figured at the time that this was critical, since the longer the game went, the more likely it was to end on a longball.
Then Mike Stanton came in. Except it wasn't the Mike Stanton we had seen for much of the season, the Stanton that Braves fans and Red Sox fans know so well. It was more like Lefty Grove in a Mike Stanton jersey. Give Stanton all the credit here; he just totally overwhelmed Perez and Alfonzo, leaving them flailing away wildly. He struck out Pratt on a pitch at his eyeballs.
(Todd Pratt was hit by two pitches in this game - and Clemens wasn't even pitching. How often does that happen? Not to mention the beating he took behind the plate. I had to wonder if Valentine was getting nervous about using his only other catcher as the DH. And what's with Jorge Posada's filthy helmet? The guy looks like he's been digging trenches, not playing a game on a grass field...)
Anyway, at 1 AM, with a man on first and one out, the Yankees got the big hit: a double by Posada. Second and third again - and again the Mets get to two outs, as O'Neill is intentionally walked this time and Turk gets Sojo to pop out to Todd Pratt. But up strides Jose Vizcaino, who posted a .332 on base percentage in two and a half seasons with the then-dismal Mets. And Vizcaino gets his fourth hit of the game. Ugh.
This was the longest game (time-wise) in World Series history, and one of the great ones. But the Mets' battle would have to be all uphill from here.
GAME TWO: HAMPTON v. CLEMENS AT YANKEE STADIUM
As an aside, those website displays showing the play-by-play are not as ultramodern as you might think. I have been reading a biography of Walter Johnson recently that mentioned how a nationwide network of scoreboards showing the line scores and nearly real-time play-by-play movement of baserunners (transmitted from the park over telegraph wires) was set up for the 1924 World Series, at a time when radio broadcasts were not universally available. Sports journalism may have its flaws, but it has always been in the technological forefront when it comes to distributing baseball scores.
The main event in Game Two was Roger Clemens' venture into the world of javelin. The Met announcers were completely dumbfounded by this development; Gary Cohen just kept yelling over and over, "WHAT was Roger Clemens thinking?" Nobody can really answer that question - probably not even Clemens. Certainly he was overwrought at pitching in the World Series again and facing Piazza, and he probably just had an emotional reaction that defied logic. I don't think he actually thought about harpooning Piazza.
(Of course, one benefit of taking things out on Piazza is that, as the Mets' best hitter, he is understandably reluctant to do what somebody should have done - charge the mound.)
What galled me was Joe Torre - who treated Clemens like he was Sonny Corleone back when he was throwing at the Yankees - claiming that Clemens couldn't have been doing anything wrong because it wouldn't be logical. WAKE UP JOE! YOU MANAGED DARRYL STRAWBERRY! YOU MANAGED STEVE HOWE! BALLPLAYERS DON'T ALWAYS ACT RATIONALLY!
The game after that was ridiculously one-sided, with the Mets seemingly intimidated by the Big Bully. But again, the difference in the game turned out to be the Yankees doing what the Mets didn't in Game One: getting insurance runs, the last let in by Dennis Cook, to the point of a six-run lead they would need every one of.
I don't know what tells me these things - a lot of years of watching Met games and some misguided optimism, perhaps - but as soon as Nelson came in to start the ninth, or at least as soon as Alfonzo led off with a single, I could smell a rally. For some reason I just knew that Payton would hit a home run, for example. But in between was a costly play, as a near-homer by Zeile again reached the top of the left field fence, only to be hauled in this time. Down to their last out, the Mets sent up the completely overmatched Kurt Abbott - with Bobby Valentine obviously worried about his extra-innings defense if he had to use McEwing at short - and Rivera made a narrow escape from a five-run rally with the win. Lesson: never let a .217 hitter be the last out of a one-run World Series game.
With Zeile losing a second game-turning homer in two days to Yankee Stadium's Death Valley, I am forced to reflect on Yankee Stadium. This Mets team was built to win at Turner Field, not Yankee Stadium - a fate that befell many a Boston Red Sox and Brooklyn Dodger team in the past. Then again, the Mets loaded up on lefthanded starting pitching; it was really just the offense. Had Zeile hit those drives anywhere else . . . but of course, that's not where the games are played. It was just the wrong flyballs in the wrong place at the wrong time. Of such stuff are World Series won and lost.